Tagged: church

Jesus’ Words of Life

wordsWords kill, words give life;

they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

Proverbs 18:21 

One of my favourite stories in the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Jesus is left alone with this woman and the disciples are off to find food.

What we quickly learn is that Jesus is not only talking to a woman, but a Samaritan woman, and not just any Samaritan woman, but a woman who’s “been around town” and most likely has no friends. We’re told that she was getting water at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, alone, which is weird, because in the ancient world, women always traveled in packs and the time for hauling well-water for the day was always in the early morning, not at the hottest time of the day—everyone knows that!

So Jesus talks to the outsider. The loner. The ex-communicated. Which is encouraging because we are all in some way or at some time been this woman.

But something else happens:

“Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.”

Shocked. Couldn’t believe. That kind of woman! Their faces showed it. I wonder how awkward this would have been for the woman. Jesus speaks words of life to those who only hear death.

Isn’t Jesus still leading his followers into these shocking, uncomfortable places? I wonder if we’re not given her name on purpose, because every reader of the story is challenged to think of the Samaritan Woman that Jesus is pointing out to in our own life.  Or perhaps a certain kind of person—the kind I would normally avoid. I wonder if there’s a “Samaritan Woman” that is in close proximity to me that I need to pay attention to.

I shared this with our youth this past Friday and they could all relate to the story. They all know what it’s like to be the Woman at the Well. They also know what it’s like to be the uncomfortable disciples when that person is suddenly in my friend group. Teenagers know first-hand the difference between “words of death” and “words of life.”  We learnt that Jesus is calling us to a way of life that takes words very seriously.  We left challenging ourselves to be intentional and attentive to any woman at the well that Jesus is asking us to talk to this week, with words of life. We ended with this prayer:

Dear Jesus

It wasn’t that long ago that we felt like an outsider, it wasn’t long ago that someone made fun of us. Not long ago, we felt worthless. But you welcomed us into your family and showed us a new way to live. No matter where we are, please help us speak up for people who do not have a voice and to use words of life to those who are hard to love. In Jesus’ name we pray.

AMEN

Reflections on Gratitude and the Holy Supper

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Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 1 Cor 10:16

Eucharisteo is the Greek word for gratitude.

The posture of thanksgiving is what the biblical narrative points to as the proper posture of the imago dei in man. This stands in contrast to our North American culture of excessive hoarding and addiction through the gratification of insatiable desires. Hans Boersma makes the observation that this is quite understandable since our words is astonishingly beautiful: “When we smell, when we taste, when we hear, when we see, when we touch—the pleasure that follows can be overwhelmingly powerful.” But the purpose of our lives is not for increased gratification of the instinctual sort. What separates us from animals and what makes us rightful candidates of the imago dei—that uniquely human calling to image the Creator—is a posture of eucharisteo: gratitude. But not just any gratitude, but the kind that leads to self-giving, the kind that recognizes that all of creation—all that we can taste, touch, smell, hear and see—is merely a gift to be offered back to God.

In response to Jesus’ instructions, christians have made what has come to be known by countless names (holy communion, eucharist, holy supper, etc) as the definitive marker of the Christian identity.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. Then word “communion” refers to the greek word, koinonia, which is also translated as fellowship, and participation. This special Christian act is precisely that: fellowship, participation, a unique and unexplainable mystery of entering into the Trinitarian life. And as we enter into the life of the Trinitarian God, we are launched into a life of eucharisteo.

To be authentically human, according to Christian faith and practice, is constituted by the posture of thanksgiving that leads to self-giving.

Paradoxically, and in opposition to everything we’re told by a culture of rampant consumerism, a life of gratitude is the life that is most satisfying of all.

Studies have shown that gratitude in itself is a healthy posture, and daily practices of expressing gratitude will contribute to happier life. But who are we to thank? How we answer this question will determine whether or not we will move from thanksgiving to self-giving.

Discipleship is More than You Know

Discipleship

Over the last half-decade of church work I have wrestled with what it’s supposed to look like for churches to practice discipleship.

The models of church that I’ve seen most are built on the idea that discipleship means accepting ideas about God.  The more “truth” you know about God, the greater disciple you are. But discipleship is not about having information, because if it is, the disciples weren’t really disciples after all. Let’s just say they didn’t have their systematic theology in order. For the disciples, and for us, discipleship is more than you know.

At the180 we are looking at how there are moments in life that we need the courage to unlearn the bad habits we’ve picked up on our journey. Jesus often calls his disciples and listeners to unlearn something—which is hard, scary, and takes courage.  The sermon that kicked off our series on unlearning reminded me of how we tend to reduce the Great Commission to “coming to church to be a christian”, instead of “going out to make disciples.” The church at large has come to the conclusion that disciple-making means giving people a list of things to believe and then making them do the same.

But Christian discipleship is much more than some heady acceptance of ideas about God.  Jesus didn’t commission his disciples to make us into great consumers of ideas or “absolute truths.” This discipleship thing has to do with our hearts, heads and hands.

Here’s something: discipleship is a word Christians use but it’s not something only Christians do. Discipleship happens to every human. Every person is being discipled all the time—something is drawing us into its way of life, teaching us a way of living that we believe will bring satisfaction. Another word for disciple is learner, but not the kind of learner that sits in a classroom to receive ideas, the kind of learner that follows a person in the way that he/she handles life, relationships, people, money, everything. Ideas play a small part.  Apprenticeship might capture what discipleship entails—being with someone long enough to become a lot like him or her. And it always happens in communal spaces, like with friends around a dinner table or a sports games.

“It’s about life!” my professor Rikk Watts is know for saying. Discipleship is about life in the most comprehensive sense. It’s about being with Jesus in order to do what he does. It’s asking the question (thank you Dallas Willard) “what would Jesus do if he was me?”

One of the things we talk about at the180 is how the church is made up of those who are “called out of the world to go back into the world.” If discipleship is more than cranial consumption, if disciples is more than you know, and discipleship has to do with the way we live, then the church needs to be more than a dispenser of ideas. The church learns to be “the called out ones” in a sacred space to rehearse the life of the kingdom through the practices of singing, eating, and sharing together around a common Lord. And it’s in this space that we learn to be disciples together–learning to live the Jesus-life–so that we can go out and make disciples.

 

 

Why Church is a Like Dressing Room

church

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:12-16

Childhood Sunday mornings started with the sound of metal hangers screeching down the pole in my closet. The noise informed me that my mother was arranging my Sunday outfit; the weekend was pretty much done and it was time to get up and ready for (what seemed to be) a long day of church. And it was now my responsibility the put on my clothes for church.

In the early days church was a time to see friends within the confines of  Sunday School and Sunday services. As long as I respectfully attended those events, it was fair game; I could hang out with friends before and after and sit with them during the service.

I didn’t have any theological understanding of what church was for; for me, church on Sunday was time to spend with friends.

Even though church, in my mind, was for spending time with friends, I have no doubt that each Sunday gathering was a place of formation: God was forming me in ways I never could have imagined.
While I was getting dressed for church, God was dressing me for a new life.

The life-long process of becoming Christian is God’s main concern. He wants us to be formed into a certain kind of people; that’s why the Bible often refers to salvation as a “new life.”

Paul lays out the characteristics of this new life in many of his letters, and one of his favourite metaphors to describe it is through the everyday practice of getting dressed.  The Christian life is one where we “put off” what is sinful and “put on” what is godly. When you become a Christian, you learn to put on the right clothes; a constant a putting off and a putting on.

Now, it’s easy to know the right answers to most questions about what’s right and wrong, and yet it’s quite hard to live them out. For example, it is easier to preach on 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter, than it is to love my neighbour as myself.  It’s much easier to explain God’s grace to someone than it is to be gracious when mistreated. It’s much easier to sing about surrender than it is to truly surrender our bank account, our time, and our energy. Let’s be real: it’s much easier to receive and relish God’s forgiveness than it is to offer it to those who’ve offended us.

Putting off sin and putting on Christ is far from easy or automatic; at least not at first. Putting on Christ needs to be learned, and it needs to be practiced.

We need help.

Let’s look again at Paul’s clothing metaphor in context. A sermon I heard recently reminded me that getting dressed takes practice. That might sound bizarre at first because you might not remember not being able to get dressed, but I guarantee that you weren’t born into this world with the natural ability to dress yourself. Mom or Dad manipulated your limbs to undress and dress you into the outfit that they imagined for you before you woke up.

Eventually, (I hope), you learned to dress yourself. In fact, you’ve dressed yourself so many times, that now, you don’t even think about it. Getting dressed is second nature to you; you may ponder on the outfit, but the “putting on” takes no thought, it just happens.

Paul chose a brilliant picture: everyone needs to learn how to get dressed. And learning how to do it requires help. And once you learn, getting dressed takes practice, it takes time, but eventually, it becomes second nature, it becomes automatic.

But this is where it gets good: you don’t have to practice alone.

The way we put on holiness, compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience and love is through what Paul describes in verse 16:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another…singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness.”

Paul’s talking about what happens when the church gathers.

Sunday gatherings is our practice time: As we gather to sing, to worship, to hear the preached Word, to participate in Holy Communion and to celebrate Baptism, we are getting dressed; putting on Christ. God graciously provides the clothes, and now teaches us how to put it on, indeed, he puts it on for us. “Work out your own salvation,” Paul says, “for it is God who works in you.”

And as the Church gathers, it becomes the place where we practice “putting on” Christ. The place where we learn to work out our salvation.

As the gathered church we absorb the Gospel through our senses: we see each other and the elements of communion with our eyes, we sing and pray together with our voices, we hear God’s Word for us with our ears, we consume the bread and wine with our mouths. Every sight, sound and movement acts together as a means to practice the deep love for us in Christ. Hearing sermon after sermon does something to your heart, even though you don’t necessarily remember every single one.

Just as you learned to get dressed, church is the dressing room where you learn to put on Christ, and eventually Christ’s too becomes second nature.

Paul began the letter to the Colossians with the prayer that they would be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). 

That’s what church is for. It’s the dressing room, where we put on the clothes that God provided for us, the place where we can learn together what it means to put on Christ. Week by week we are putting on God’s love, God’s patience, God’s humility, meekness and compassion, so that we can get back into the world with right kind of clothes.

 

 

Can We Know God’s Will for our Lives? Part 2

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In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it?

Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God’s will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God’s will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.

Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a “no” and others with a “yes,” while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.

Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God’s direction. Maybe it’s prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one’s life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.

Let me illustrate:

Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it’s game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.

Likewise, to fret about God’s will for my dinner or whether or not I should be “kind” to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we’re asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we’re ignoring the rules of the game we’ve already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.

I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand “God’s will for my life” as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.

In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.

Seeking God’s will for my life does not dismiss everything he’s already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my “gifts” in the context of the team and the strategy already given?

The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.

One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.

We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?

Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:

1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God’s rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment?  When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God’s word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you’ll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn’t an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.

2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.

3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you’re in, or if you’re out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover  new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favourites).

4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn’t. But don’t eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don’t be quick to take them as signs that this isn’t what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.

5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike.   We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.

All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God’s initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God’s YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.

Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God’s team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God’s will below.

Mirror Dimly

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We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 1 Cor 13:12 (MSG)

In the “love chapter” Paul provides a beautiful metaphor to explain our earthly limitations. As long as we await Christ’s second coming, life is experienced as through a mirror dimly.

Paul is talking about the different parts of worship that revolve around scripture; singing, tongues, prophecy, preaching. These are gifts to the church to foster and serve love.  If love for God and for one another is not the motivation and goal of worship, then it is nothing more than a clanging cymbal; an out-of-place and misleading distraction.

Paul goes on to say that we see through a mirror dimly because we are still infected by sin, despite our standing with Christ. The metaphor calls attention to the act of seeing, not to the mirror itself:  we do not see a “dim mirror.” It is the act of seeing which is limited by dimness-a foggy overcast that beckons us to humility.

A mirror is used to see a reflection–of yourself, of others, of what’s around you. Scripture is the mirror that we see in order to know God and to know ourselves; it is the breathed out words of God that are without error and profitable for training in righteousness. But my reading of Scripture is faulty and broken, and until I come to grips with this reality, I will not serve love. Without an awareness that I am unable to know and interpret Scripture in its entirety, I will be a clanging cymbal.

Today, Christians are bombarded with skepticism around Scripture. We are told not to trust the Bible because it’s archaic and erroneous. The temptation will be to defend the Bible’s reliability in ways that ignore human limitations-we insist on the certitude and clarity of Scripture; we simplify what is complex and ignore the impaired capacity of a dim vision.

Some are afraid of the uncertainty of what I am proposing. Don’t we want people to be confident in the reliability and authority of Scripture? Yes. But what is the purpose of the authority of Scripture but to form God’s people into who they were called to be? What I want for Christians is to trust in the power of Scripture to shape their lives; and that we don’t need to know all the answers for that to happen. Perhaps the power of the Scriptures–its authority to shape our lives–is only effective when we approach it with humility. Uncertainty is what compels faith, and it is in the uncertainty–in the dimness of our vision–that God encounters us and we begin to really, and truly see. That alone will serve love.

The Dark Night of the Soul

darknight 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

– Psalm 13:1-2

I have felt a longing which is difficult to put into words and yet which I can no longer restrain from articulating. It feels as though this longing has been with me too long. It feels like years long. It feels like a longing for the clarity of day, or for a satiating breakfast after sleeping in. I long for vision to see, imagination to create and courage to love. Perhaps it’s a longing for true intimacy, a longing for God himself, to be awakened by his Word, his Church, and his work in the world.

His Kingdom.

I know that God is not silent nor distant. But I, on the other hand, am deaf and blind, hearing only quiet tremors and seeing brief glimpses of his Kingship. I am listless, visionless, and shrouded in darkness. A deafening thunder and worrisome cloudiness drown out the tremors and glimpses of God’s person and work.

Do not be fooled, the Dark Night of the Soul lasts much longer than a night.

But, despite the failed attempts, the feeling of fatherlessness, the certitude of being unable to get through to God, the dark and the nights are for our benefit. St. John of the Cross calls it “sheer grace,” singing,

O guiding night!

            O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

            the Love with His beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her Lover

Prolonged night and darkness are meant to strip away the distractions that provide us with illusions of light and day—illusions of vision and hearing. The sights and sounds that we credit as meaning-giving are revealed for what they are—illusions. But with time, the illusions no longer satisfy the depths of our longing, or better, we realize that they never have.

So, God lovingly draws us into the dark night of the soul that we may see and hear him more clearly. And together with the Psalmist, we pray:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

    because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

– Psalm 13:5-6

Amen.

Praying Sacramentally

christians-praying-iconThere are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

Cross-Shaped Community

We often seek to be in relationship with people that are like us, in terms of ethnicity, dress, socio-economic status, etc.  But the Gospel transcends these categories. It creates a people that are part of the new creation: “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).  The “how” of the community of this “new creation” requires a posture of self-giving that takes its shape from the Cross. Earlier in the chapter, Paul tells us that we must

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2)

 So what is distinctive about this new creation community?  What’s the purpose of relationships if it isn’t to meet people that have similar sentiments?  I want to examine three truths from this passage that may help us make sense of Christian life in new creation community, which must take the shape of the cross.

1. We all have burdens.

The easy-road consumer-driven “prosperity gospel”  promises a burden-less wealth-filled good-life, rather than a cross-shaped life. Its popularity is a witness to the pervasiveness of our consumer mentality: it seeks to “sell” the gospel by promising  physical well-being and status. Sadly, it overlooks the Christian life portrayed by the Scriptures. . Jesus instructs his followers  that they too must bear their cross, a prerequisite to being his disciple (Luke 14:27). Peter says suffering is a means of “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” The church at Corinth suffered from persecution; Paul doesn’t tell them that they don’t have enough faith, but tells of his own suffering and exults in them, claiming that they are to bear the marks of  ministering for a crucified messiah. The reason why I mention the “prosperity gospel” is because I think it has so deeply pervaded our thinking that we have come to believe that sharing our burdens is a bad, faithless thing to do. In reality, we all have burdens, we all have struggles, we all have emotional or physical pain. We must begin with the concession that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and therefore, we all have burdens, to be shared within our new creation community.

2. A personal relationship with Jesus does not mean a private relationship with Jesus.

We love our privacy. I know I do. But a close relative of privacy is a subtle resolution for self-sufficiency. Culture  tells us that we must seek to be self-made men and women. As a result, we establish a framework in which we view people as tools to serve our independent purposes rather than as humans to share life with. It’s time to stop living as though a “personal relationship with God” means doing Christian life alone. In verse 6 (in Galatians 6) Paul warns, “if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Something who “thinks he is something” thinks it too menial a task to bear the burden of another, and will keep their own burdens private, since that would require an acknowledgment of need. If we’re not careful, we will use the language of “having a personal relationship to Jesus” as a justification for pride, and thereby avoid participation in the new creation community. 

3. Burden bearing, not being the morality police, fulfills the law of Christ.

In Galatians, Paul addresses the moral imposition of the so-called Judaizers. They wanted circumcision to be the identifying mark of the Christian, a scheme that sought to salvage a defining ethnic element of the Jewish tradition.  Paul, annoyed, writes: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (5:12).  It seems the Judaizers cared little for the burdens of the people.  They focused their energies instead on keeping their ethnic tradition intact and so imposed many laws and instructions  in a burdensome manner.  The question for the new creation community is: Will we impose burdens on each other, or will we bear each others burdens?

The Canadian way tends to be the private way, and as a result, we don’t know the deep struggles, temptations, and sufferings of those in our church communities. Despite this, within the new creation community, we are directed to bear each others burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. This requires a cross-shaped  faith and lifestyle that seeks to acknowledge our own failures, embrace the way of humility, and lovingly fulfills the law of Christ, that is, the law of love. 

Dematerialization, Idealism, and the Beauty of Cruciformity

A recent reading of book of James reminded me of the human tendency to compartmentalize ideas, beliefs, experiences, and so on, into their own category, and thus separating their integration. This reminded me of a quote in  Screwtape Letters.  C.S. Lewis has the veteran demon write this to his nephew:  “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (Letter IV). Lewis cleverly reveals the integration of the body, mind and soul  – that they are not their own parts, inconsequential of their action towards the rest of the body. The tendency to believe this is to make a grievous error.

James intended to remind readers that faith does not exist without a life of works. Faith and work are two expressions of the same thing: an encounter with the living Christ. Belief and action are not to be separated – to do so would be to live a dematerialized Christianity, and  we tend to do this much more often than we think. We become idealists in our beliefs, yet we neglect to speak to the One who is centre of that ideal. More passion is spent on disagreeing with someones theology/ideology than on seeking and praying to the God of grace. This is a dematerialized faith, one that has glorified ideals at the expense of being with the person of Christ.

Moreover, NT Wright has written much about the problem among Evangelicals who have made the Christian hope one of future dematerialization. The belief is that one day, if you are Christian, when you die, or when the ‘rapture’ happens, you will go to heaven. What most people mean by this, is that their “soul” or their “spirit” will go to the sky and live on clouds, and play harp music with Jesus who is of course the worship leader. Thankfully, this is completely wrong.

Though many factors contribute, this is due to a Christian conception of the afterlife that has been overly dematerialized – a separation of body/soul/spirit. This ideal  demonizes the material world and glorifies the non material; which Wright argues in Surprised by Hope, leads to a tragic disregard for the present creation.  It is an escapist mindset, viewing the current world as totally corrupt and irredeemable, thus placing hope in a disembodied heaven.

The problem is due in large part to a erroneous view of heaven.  Wright explains:

‘God’s kingdom’  in the preaching of Jesus refers, not to post-mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but about God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.10 The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swathes of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world, and our present bodies, and regard them as shabby or shameful.

Likewise, the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation have been much misunderstood. The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last, he will remake both, and join them together for ever. And when we come to the picture of the actual End in Revelation 21–22, we find, not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven, but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.

Heaven invades earth when God enters creation. Additionally, Wright argues that Easter — the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — is what is under fire in this ideal. The resurrection of Christ has lost its centrality in the Christian hope, it has taken a back seat only to be replaced by an escapist longing for a disembodied heaven.

The consequences are detrimental:

What we say about death and resurrection gives shape and colour to everything else. If we are not careful, we will offer merely a ‘hope’ that is no longer a surprise, no longer able to transform lives and communities in the present, no longer generated by the resurrection of Jesus himself and looking forward to the promised new heavens and new earth (36).

Moreover, the wider implication of this dematerialized hope is the “downgrading of bodies and the created order” which we will one day leave behind (37). Wright notes the historic shift during the 18th century, in which “Evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead” (38).

The focus of Wright’s book is centred primarily on the resurrection – which rightly provides hope for the conquering of death and the future plan to redeem all of creation. Additionally, what I think we require in this very moment is the beauty of the Incarnation.

“The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14).

Surely, John’s readers would have recognized what John was saying about Jesus: he is God in the flesh.  God always intended that through the story of Israel, God would restore the brokenness of creation. How? By progressively coming nearer to it – bringing ‘heaven,’ the “God dimension” to creation. The restoration of creation would come as God drew closer to it; through the tabernacle, the temple, and ultimately the Temple who is Christ, and now, by the Spirit, by whom  our bodies are made into His temple, and thus through the Church.

The incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection. These are meant to bring restoration to a creation that is under a curse. Not simply a restoration but a fruitfulness and ability to flourish. Like a seed that is planted into the ground, the seed must loose its glory, it must die, for the tree to grow, flourish and provide fruit for the planter. In that way the seed is beautiful and mysterious.

Jesus spoke of himself and his followers when he said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

God enters into his own story by incarnating himself, and beckons us – the church – to enter into his story of the  ross, death, burial, and resurrection.

Thus, in this cruciform life – a life shaped by the cross — and by it we begin to behold the beauty of the incarnation; and paradoxically, by embracing the way of the cross, death turns into the blessing of life.

CS Lewis puts it this way: “we do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves.”

Paul’s teaching and life is in step with this:

“…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-12

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” – 2 Timothy 2:11

“I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” – Galatians 2:20

May the Church grasp the beauty of the story of Christ – the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection, and be intentional about entering into that story not  by idealizing it, nor by escaping the created world, but through lament, prayer, seeking the King, his Kingdom, and his Spirit, to the glory of God. Lord, help our unbelief.